On Ondrej Pavelec: An Interview with Goalie Scout Justin Goldman

Kevin McCartney
October 17 2013 03:52AM

Ondrej Pavelec can be a challenging member of the Jets to understand. Given a large contract after a career year of a meager .914 save percentage, his best season in the Polar Night blues was a very poor .906. Still, the team's faith in him seems unwaivering, and this pre-season was the first time mainstream media seemed concerned with the trajectory of his career. We hear about his clutch saves, his diving athleticism, and heroic acrobatics, and it can be a challenge to match that to the numbers and the overall success he has on the ice. 

So we went to an expert. We caught up with Justin Goldman, founder of The Goalie Guild, writer at NHL.com, and Regional Goalie Scout for USA Hockey and Goalie Mentor for the NTDP. He gave us some really interesting insight, and honestly taught me a lot about goaltending in the process. Enjoy!

1. How would you describe Pavelec as a goaltender?  

I describe Pavelec as an athletic, dynamic, reflex-based goalie. I explain his game like this; some goalies are small in stature but play big, like Jonathan Bernier and Jhonas Enroth. Other goalies are big in stature but play like they're smaller, and that would be Pavelec.

For a guy his size, the combination of reflexes, agility and flexibility is all-world. This is very apparent when he gets into a deep, compact crouch on faceoffs and then uses explosive pushes and lateral adjustments to get behind a shot or get pieces of pucks. Another display of his impressive athleticism can be seen when he executes the pop-up recovery -- both knees pop off the ice at the same time while down in the butterfly. This is something you rarely see for a goalie his size and a good example of his unique style. He has a bit of an old-school approach in certain ways, but generally speaking, that's how I like to describe Pavelec as a goalie. 

2. What are his strengths and weaknesses?

Pavelec's strengths include his reaction speed, his quick feet in small spaces, his instincts, aggressiveness, active stick and hands, and his competitiveness. His ability to make extension and reaching saves is also quite good, as is his ability to make last-moment reflex saves. Generally speaking, Pavelec's combination of size and quickness is his most obvious strength.

Unfortunately, and as I say to many scouts, some of his strengths also act as weaknesses. At times he's too athletic, he's moving too much in small spaces, he's too aggressive with his depth, he over-challenges shooters, or he's moving way more than necessary. Another weakness would be his inconsistency from game-to-game and period-to-period. Ultimately, I've learned over the years that Pavelec often beats himself because he's too loud in the crease and giving up too many second chances. At his size, less is more, and that's the philosophy I hope he begins to embrace if he wants to reduce and limit the weaknesses.

The technical base could be stronger and there are times where he looks pretty sloppy and unrefined, but generally speaking, he's a pretty gifted athlete.

3. Okay - required question for this season: do you think the equipment changes make much difference to Pavelec, relative to other goalies?

Every goalie is affected a little differently, so I honestly have no idea how much Pavelec has been influenced by the rule changes. I could argue that the smaller pads have made some goalies a little quicker, a little less encumbered, and a little more dynamic, so if you correlate that to what I said above, maybe that is something worth looking into. But from my perspective, I don't think the rule changes have made much difference to Pavelec. 

4. We hear a lot in our media zone about Pavelec's "big save" ability. Is that a real skill for goalies? And does Pavelec have it?

Great question. Technically speaking, I don't consider "big save ability" to be a "real skill" because it's not a stand-alone skill independent from others. Making the big save is situational; it relies on being focused under pressure and playing with a clear mind. That means it's an interdependent skill, one that is inherently tied to the mental and emotional realms of the position. Furthermore, it can't be clearly defined. I mean, what is considered a big save? Saves made when down a goal? Saves made when the game is tied? Without a clear-cut definition, everyone will label the ability differently.

Now, do I think Pavelec has that ability? Absolutely. Every NHL goalie does in some shape or form. But how often he displays that ability and to what degree is an answer that depends a lot on the situation. Making big saves comes and goes, ebbs and flows. For example, we've seen Marc-Andre Fleury exhibit the "big save" ability in the Stanley Cup Finals before, but we've also seen him completely fall apart in the playoffs over the past few years. So is he capable of making big saves? Of course, just not lately. His inability to accomplish this isn't due to his skills devolving, it's something more than that. So to me, "big save ability" is relative to his ability to do things like avoid distraction, stay relaxed, and play in the moment when points and wins are on the line. Regardless of all that, to answer simply, l would say that Pavelec does have the big save ability. But maybe I'd just like to see it on a more consistent basis.  

5. His numbers haven't been good in Winnipeg (.905 last year, .906 the year before), but the team isn't known for its stellar defence. In your opinion, is Pavelec a goalie undone by his defence group/team? Is he better than his numbers tell us?

This is another question where the answer is in the eye of the beholder. In my opinion, Pavelec is slightly better than the numbers tell me. I saw Pavelec give up two goals in the first period against Montreal on Tuesday night and neither of them were his fault. One was a bad bounce of the end boards and another was a laser one-timer from Subban. He was solid after that and finished with a .917 SV%, which could be considered a quality start. I don't know how often this type of situation happens because I don't watch him every game, but if you were to take a look at the statistical analysis of his performances relative to the rest of the league over the course of his career, they'd probably say that he's below average, especially with the expectations surrounding his current contract.

That being said, the way a goalie is perceived is always partially tied to their external surroundings. Is Corey Crawford, Chris Osgood, or Martin Brodeur a product of their teams? To a certain degree, of course they are. For every goalie, this question is an endless debate and there's a lot of great statistical analysis out there breaking those things down. It's awesome stuff to look at, but even then, how much of Pavelec's success or failure is tied to the team is up to the observer to decide. From my perspective, I think the defensive support could be way better, but so could his consistency. Both sides need to be better. 

6. His numbers in the second game of back-to-backs are much worse - just .879 in 6 games of that type last year. Could that be a fatigue issue? Or another possible issue? Or is it most likely a coincidence?

Nothing in goaltending happens in a vacuum, so it's a combination of a few things I'm sure. I can't pinpoint one thing specifically that I've seen, but I can say that last season's numbers was no coincidence. He has been terrible in this situation throughout his NHL career. I researched the stats and they're pretty horrific. Heading into this season, he was 3-15-0 in 19 appearances in the second game of a back-to-back with 447 saves on 514 shots. I had no idea it was that bad. I should have also written down his goal support in those games, but I think I saw that the Jets scored more goals on average in each of the last three seasons, and I think they were 12th overall last year for goals-per-game. Regardless, it's pretty obvious that Pavelec needs to find a way to play better in this situation.

7. On this blog, I've suggested that part of the Jets' challenge at gaining control in their own zone is Pavelec's rebound control. To my eye, he doesn't track the puck well, and rebounds often go into danger zones and/or away from his defence group. How well is Pavelec managing rebound?

A team defense can't control much when it comes to a goalie's rebound control. They can do things like block shots, force shots away from the center of the ice and eliminate back-door passing lanes. Conversely, a goalie can't really do much to control his team's defensive system. He can communicate better, be more active moving the puck up the ice and manage loose pucks in order to slow things down and get fresh bodies on the ice. So again, this is another situational element of goaltending. It's a six-man unit out there, and both sides need to work harmoniously as often as possible.

That being said, I do think Pavelec is solid at tracking pucks, but he could be better at finding them through traffic and screens. I also think he picks up some pucks late, especially on shots in close, but that's up for debate since I don't watch him game in and game out.

It's important to understand that rebound control depends a lot on the situation and the goalie's rhythm and timing. Some guys are consistently good at controlling rebounds because they play a more positionally-based style, like Bernier or Carey Price. But even they have their struggles at different times throughout the season.

In general terms, goalies that are more reaction-based will probably display more movements and therefore be more prone to kicking pucks out, or making reaching saves, which can also lead to worse rebounds. He also has pretty active hands, so he'll get pieces of shots through traffic at the last second but won't always absorb them cleanly with a quiet upper body. If a goalie's timing and rhythm is slightly off and they're reacting too early or too late, that greatly impairs their rebound control.

Elite rebound control is a tough balance to achieve, especially if you're not playing every game. It's like being in the zone -- you know what it feels like when you have it, but it's not easy to sustain. At the end of the day, I do agree that generally speaking, Pavelec's rebound control is not as good as it should be. In particular I've noticed that Pavelec's rebound control from dead angles struggles at times, and he isn't the best at soaking up shots in tight spaces because he has active hands while picking up shots late. That's why he seems messy at times and ends up over-reacting. 

8. To take a step back, how can any goalie manage rebounds better? How does that skill get developed?

This is a loaded question but it deserves a loaded answer, so here goes. To start, a goalie can manage rebounds better by making sure their feet are set when a shot is taken. When it comes to evaluating a goalie's posture in any save situation, optimal balance is reliant on their center of gravity. The more stable their base is, the more stable their body will be and the more controlled they will be when making a save. If there is even the slightest amount of movement -- I call this forward, backward, vertical, or lateral drifting -- once a goalie squares up and the shot is taken, the goalie will end up slightly off that angle when the puck hits the body. Consider shots against the grain or shots that catch a goalie moving, and how much tougher it is for goalies to control those pucks as they come off their body. But when a goalie fully sets his feet, squares up to the puck with perfect angles, and has a stable base and a still, quiet upper body, the puck is more likely to be absorbed, controlled, or directed as they'd like.

Another way to manage rebounds better is to have an active stick. Especially now with smaller thigh rises, stick placement and getting sticks on pucks is of utmost importance. Using an active stick to deflect low shots away from the slot area or to ramp them out of play can eliminate "tweeners" and soft rebounds in the low slot. Goalies need to eliminate these potential crease battles by soaking everything up. This also improves their economy of movement and their energy levels, and that's something Pavelec could really benefit from. He exerts a lot of energy over the course of a game because he's more reliant on the reflexes and athleticism, so he might be burning more fuel than a guy like Bernier or Price.

Next, and arguably the most important, comes the tracking skills. Goalies that can track a puck off a shooter's stick will have more body control and and more confidence in their save mechanics, and the more confidence they have in tracking a puck's trajectory, the more relaxed their body will be when the puck arrives on net. Vision is everything. When a goalie lacks eye attachment to a puck, they "freak out" at times and tense up or become hesitant or desperate. If they pick up a puck late, they're guessing in the moment, and they're not going to be able to make the appropriate micro-movements needed to absorb the shot or take the puck off the pad and place it where it needs to go. If you pick up pucks late, odds are higher that you're reacting late, and that raises the odds of an uncontrolled rebound.

There is also some great science behind a concept known as The Quiet Eye. This is the very small amount of time a goalie has to gain optimal focus on the puck while it is still on a shooter's stick, just before it is released. A scientist found that the best goalies in the world know how to achieve this "Quiet Eye" and maximize the amount of time they can discern where a shot is aimed, the shot's trajectory, and all sorts of other visual cues. This is where it ties in to the way a body reacts. The more a goalie can achieve that quiet eye, the more control the body has because there's less tension and less guessing going into the save movements.

Finally, and a skill I consider very underrated, is catching low shots in front of the pad. Pekka Rinne excels at this. It's easy to catch pucks mid-height or on aerial shots over the shoulder, but if you have the ability to reach down in front of the pad on a shot 3-10" off the ice, you're eliminating rebounds completely.Those are just a few basic ways a goalie can manage their rebounds better.

How do you improve it? Experience, repetitions, and amazing body and edge control. At the NHL level, you also have to be able to read a shooter's stick and read their release, which leads to more complicated concepts known as pattern recognition and head trajectory. But at the end of the day, managing rebounds is all about vision, tracking pucks, having set feet, a stable base, great balance, and solid posture.

9. Al Montoya only started 6 games for the Jets last year and it seems Claude Noel doesn't much trust him. It was a surprise that the team brought him back for a second year. Do Pavelec/Montoya make a good pair? Is there a reason a particular back-up might be a good fit for a particular starter?

I've written at length about a concept I introduced a few years ago called Shadowing. Shadowing is a constantly evolving aspect of goaltending where a goalie, both consciously and subconsciously, will mimic certain traits, techniques and mannerisms of their counterpart. An example of this would be Anders Lindback starting to look a lot more like Pekka Rinne once he made the Preds out of training camp a few years ago. Thomas Greiss exhibits traits of Evgeni Nabokov because they trained together in San Jose's system at a time when Greiss was just breaking into the league and was very impressionable. Soon you'll start to see him mimic some traits of Mike Smith as they practice and play together on a more regular basis. Jeff Zatkoff looks pretty similar to Fleury. Peter Budaj looks way more like Carey Price right now compared to his days with the Avalanche because Price is the prototype for positionally-sound goaltending and a major influencer of goalies around the globe.

This Shadowing effect happens quite often in many different ways. Part of this is due to the impact of coaching, and part of this is due to the way the mind and body works together to evolve a goalie's skills. The more you watch a certain goalie, the more likely you are to pick up movements. Any goalies reading this can think back to their idols -- the goalies they watched on TV growing up -- and I guarantee that most goalies will agree that they mimic different elements of their idol's style.

So to answer your question, I do think there's a good argument to be made for teams signing and developing backups and prospects that are comparable in size and substance to the team's starter. But this is purely just a concept, and there's no shortage of ways to develop and establish successful tandems.

I think Montoya and Pavelec make a nice pair, but I'm sure there could be a better 1-2 punch out there. I think one of the best tandems right now is in Colorado -- a young gifted athlete like Varlamov learning from a true leader in Giguere -- and they're about as different as you can get in terms of style and substance. So it really just depends and there are arguments for having comparables and having guys with different styles, because goalies can learn from seeing someone different as much as they can from seeing someone similar. I will say that guys like Giguere and Nikolai Khabibulin make great backups because they have something you can't teach -- experience and Cup rings. They are unfazed by certain pressures that younger goalies experience throughout their career, and there's merit to the term "mentor" for sure. Experience is a trait that should never be overlooked because goalies that know how to bring an even-keeled approach to the rink every day will usually be more consistent. So maybe the only thing that might help Winnipeg's tandem as a whole is a more experienced backup. That being said, I think Montoya has paid his dues in the AHL and with the Coyotes and Islanders, and has done a good job when called upon.

10. At 26 with 240 games of NHL experience, can we still expect him to get appreciably better?

That's the big fat juicy question, right? Can we expect him to get better? I think we can. But how much better can he get? And more importantly, how much better does he need to be for the Jets to make the playoffs? In both instances, I don't think it's very much. I think he's really close to reaching his "talent ceiling" so to speak. But this really depends a lot on how he's being coached and how he's managing his own game. Maybe both sides could be better, I really don't know that answer.But what I can tell you is that this is a really tricky balance to achieve.

If I were the goalie coach, I'd ask myself this question: Do I force Pavelec to dial back the athleticism and some of his best assets in order to have better positioning, or do I leave him alone and hope he realizes this on his own? What is the root of his imbalance to begin with? Is the holdup technical, mental, or emotional? Is he stubborn? Is he a slow learner? Is he as adaptable as he could be? Is he capable of being more consistent and effective if the athleticism is reduced, or does he need that to play at his best? How much of this over-athleticism is due to simply being a product of his environment? These are complex questions with even more complex answers. At the end of the day, if these "environmental" factors remain the same, well, you're likely to get the same results. So that being said, I don't expect him to get "appreciably" better because I still see a goalie that is over-reliant on athleticism and not using his size to his true advantage and not getting enough support in front. If you agree that the positional and technical base could use a bit more strengthening, well, you should probably expect more of the same, with maybe only slight movements in the positive and negative direction.

11. Is there anything else we should know about the Jets' netminder?

After watching Pavelec's most recent performance against the Canadiens, I'll sum up what I think he needs to do to reach the next level by juxtaposing him to Price.

Imagine if you measured the distance both guys traveled in their creases over the course of the game with string. Now take those strings, straighten them out in a perfect line and lay them next to each other. Metaphorically speaking, Pavelec probably traveled around 10 miles, while Price probably traveled around 100 feet...and he faced 12 more shots in the game. Those are imaginary numbers, but what I'm saying is that Price's economy of movement is truly elite, yet he can still make the athletic, reflex-based save when needed. If Pavelec can learn to economize his movements and utilize his size a little better, he'll "travel" less distances over the course of a game, give up less dangerous rebounds, and ultimately take the next step in his overall development.

Remember, he's still only 26 years old, so I could argue that he's still evolving and that he's still a year or two away from his true prime. It's also worth pointing out that this guy experienced one of the scariest things ever when he collapsed on the ice a few years ago, so there's no knowing what kind of profound influence that had on his life.

I think you asked some great questions here, and you've opened the door for some really cool statistical analysis on Pavelec, which is very important in today's game. You can learn a great deal from comparing Pavelec to goalies of a similar age and career workload. But even then, it's important to realize that the true nature of goaltending is intimately tied to their emotional and mental states. Pavelec is a great talent with a lot of potential, but that potential can't be realized unless a goalie has an exceptional understanding of how their body works, and how they need to prepare in order to play at their best on a nightly basis.

Like I've said, I think he's right on the fringe of going from good to excellent. The alterations he needs to make don't appear to be drastic. He could turn the corner and reach the next level at any given moment. The question is whether or not you as an individual have the patience to see it through, or whether you think he's even capable of turning that corner before time runs out. He's certainly not giving up, and neither should you. 

Thoughts

Justin gives us a lot to think about here. Pavelec's stronger start does seem to come with more economy of movement than we're used to, and the team is shifting to a more passive defensive structure in front of him. It's not anywhere near Carey Price efficiency, but perhaps we're seeing him take that next step. Still, Justin's points about picking up pucks late and how active his hands can be are well taken. In fact, it was like a light switch for me in helping me process what I see when I watch Pavelec. 

We have a working theory on his back-to-back problems derived from Justin's comment about how much Pavelec works during a game. And we also have some more variables to consider - his mental preparedness, his emotional state, and just how much he's 'Shadowing' his goal partner (Montoya) and/or coach (Wade Flaherty).

It's a very interesting look behind the numbers. What did you take away from it?

 

Thanks to Justin Goldman for his insight and time. If you haven't looked at the TheGoalieGuild.com before, you really should. Obviously the guy knows what he's talking about, and they do everything from Scouting and Camp Evaluations, to custom graphics for your gear, to great insight and analysis. It's a really fantastic site. You can catch up with Justin on twitter as well @TheGoalieGuild 

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Kevin is the Managing Editor of Jets Nation. His work has been featured on Bleacher Report, The Sporting News, and around the Nations Network. An enthusiastic over-analyst, his background and interests are diverse, but you might notice he's obsessed with hockey. Track him down on twitter @kevinmccart or @nhljetsnation
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#1 Rhys Finnick
October 17 2013, 11:46AM
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Cool interview, thanks fellas!

It's refreshing to hear this kind of in-depth information about the position, as we so rarely do. Justin really plays up how important a goalie's emotional state is, which is interesting to juxtapose with how we view a forward or defenceman in the same light. We hear so much about how players need to play with fear, anger, and desperation, whereas for goaltending, Justin preaches awareness, calmness, and an emotional balance.

I've played goal at a couple drop-ins and am endlessly mystified by the aspect of positioning. It speaks to the difficulty of the position that even NHL players continue to struggle with it.

On a different note, I've never really understood the terminology that a goalie "doesn't have a chance" on a play. Doesn't a goalie always have a chance as the one standing in the middle of the net? Speaking to Subban's one-timer goal on Pavelec, couldn't Pavelec conceivably have read the way the passing play was setting up, recognized Subban is Montreal's triggerman in those situations, and compensated positionally? I understand that sometimes guys are going to score no matter what, but whether the difficulty of a potential save is 1 or 100, the goalie should always be thought to have a chance.

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#3 Justin
October 17 2013, 04:58PM
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Interesting analysis. I wonder if Pavalec's movement in the crease (as compared to someone like Price) has something to do with his poor performance in back-to-back games.

If he travelled less, would he have more energy the next day?

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